Asian female leaders’ rise tied to male kin

Dad's role aside, South's first female leader paid her dues


South Korean President-elect Park Geun Hye joins a long list of Asian women whose rise to power has, to varying degrees, been founded on the political legacy of a male sibling, father or husband.

Park, who will become the country’s first female president in February after her historic election win Wednesday, is the daughter of former military ruler Park Chung Hee.

Despite carving out an independent political career since winning a national assembly seat in 1998, Park is, for many South Koreans, still largely defined in relation to her father and his authoritarian 1961-79 rule.

The same is true of a number of prominent Asian women leaders — past and present — who took office or came to prominence under a male shadow and then, in some cases, went on to create major political legacies of their own.

The list includes Myanmar’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, India’s Indira Gandhi, Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto, Corazon Aquino of the Philippines and the current Thai prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

As with Park, their elevation to high office was often seen as a sign of female empowerment in Asia’s largely male-dominated politics but the reality is “far more complex,” according to former Asia Society President Vishakha N. Desai.

“It is fair to say that in many Asian societies, hierarchical by nature, a powerful family connection can actually trump the gender constraints,” Desai wrote in an article for the society’s website.

Yingluck, aged 45 and elected in 2011 as the first Thai female prime minister and the youngest in more than six decades, is seen by critics as a puppet for her brother, fugitive ex-leader Thaksin Shinawatra, who once described her as his “clone.”

Aquino, a self-proclaimed “plain housewife,” emerged as a political force after the assassination in 1983 of her husband and lawmaker Benigno Aquino Jr. and became the nation’s first female president three years later.

Park stands out in being a seasoned and respected politician and Desai noted that, in her case, her father’s split image as economic savior and ruthless dictator had been both a boon and a burden.

Jung Mi Ae, a professor at Kookmin University, also pointed out that after Park Chung Hee’s assassination in 1979, Park was left to build her own political brand alone.

Park’s mother was murdered five years before her father, and she has never married or had children.

“There’s still a question mark over how Park will fare as a leader, but she’s not some figurehead who came to power solely because of her father, either,” Jung said.

Park Geun Hye enjoys solid support among older conservative Koreans who admired her father, but exit polls from Wednesday’s ballot suggest she was also favored by more than 30 percent of voters in their 20s or 30s.

“The fact that she received considerable support from young voters with little memory of, or love for, the late Park shows that she has established a certain political brand of her own,” Jung said.

Park’s election marks a historic breakthrough for a traditionally Confucian country whose political and commercial fields are dominated by men, in both the private and public sectors.

Women occupy a mere 15 percent of seats in Parliament and only 12 percent of managerial positions at 1,500 major firms.

They also earn nearly 40 percent less than men — the biggest pay gap among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development group of nations.